2021 Season Preview: Teams with the Most Potential Free Agents

In our final look at the 2021 season I wanted to look at the free agent situations for teams in 2022. This can give us an idea of how invested teams might be in this season versus those with a bit more of a long term view of the future. To qualify for inclusion a player must be set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2022 and either have played at least 35% of the snaps last season, a contract APY over $3 million per year, or be a first round pick still on his rookie contract. This eliminates many of the lesser contributors.

I also looked at the projected cap space for next year for each team to see just how much cap that the team could use per player. Please note that the Eagles and Colts recently signed free agents whose cap numbers are not included in the calculations.

The top six teams in terms of players are the Texans, Buccaneers, Bears, Broncos, Colts and Raiders. The Broncos and bears skew the oldest in the group and may feature players who will not be back next year. The Broncos, Colts, and Raiders are in good cap shape to handle re-signing or replacing players while the Texans and Bucs will need to shift some money around.

The teams with the fewest number of free agents are the Bengals, Giants, Titans, Cowboys, Lions, and Rams. This is important for the Giants, Cowboys, and Rams who are all facing tight cap situations in 2022. Cincinnati and Detroit will have cap room to look outside the organization so those teams are less invested in their current setup.

Teams in bad shape for next year include the Packers and Saints (both with 9 free agents and projected to be $40 million over the cap), Vikings (10 FAs and $9.8M OTC), and Falcons (11 FAs and $1.3M in cap space). The 49ers are also in a bad position but the expected turnover at QB should move them to a better spot.

Here is the full list. You can sort the columns by clicking on the header.

TeamPlayersAvg. FA AgeEstimated Cap SpaceCap/FA

Thoughts on TJ Watt’s $112M Contract with the Steelers

TJ Watt became the highest paid defensive player in the history of the NFL, signing a four year, $112 million contract that surprisingly contained $80 million fully guaranteed at signing from the Steelers who generally have some type of phobia around guarantees. PFT has the breakdown of the contract so I thought I could run some quick analysis on the contract.

Here is how Watt’s contract compares to the two prior top end players in terms of new money cash flows.

PlayerYear 0Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5
T.J. Watt$25,911,000$49,911,000$69,911,000$90,961,000$112,000,000FA
Joey Bosa$28,640,000$42,390,000$63,640,000$87,640,000$109,640,000$135,000,000
Myles Garrett$23,750,000$42,750,000$60,000,000$80,203,875$100,000,000$125,000,000

Outside of the earnings this year, which trail the Bosa contract, the numbers here completely blow away the market. His earnings through the first year outpaces Garrett by 16.8%. In the second year he has a 9.9% advantage over Bosa and then dropping down closer to the Bosa numbers where he will earn 3.8% and 2.2% more in years 3 and 4. Watt’s contract also has the major advantage of free agency after just four seasons giving him another crack at free agency before the other two players.

As a point of reference two franchise tags would have cost the Steelers about $40 million between the 2022 and 2023 seasons.  He will instead make close to $70 million. A third tag would have cost the team at least $31 million or the value of the QB franchise tag. That probably would have brough the three year number between $71 and $77 million. He will make over $90 million on this contract so this destroys the franchise tag outcomes at every stop.

It is worth pointing out that Watt appears to have given up the rights to the 17th game check this year based on Florio’s contract breakdown. That was worth $593,471 so it is not an insignificant number. If you factor that in you would take that out from each year’s cash flows. (edit- he will receive the extra check it just was not included in the original article)

Watt is the first non-QB to crack the $30M three year metric. That is a big milestone for the defensive players. This would make him the 9th highest paid in terms of three year cash behind Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Ryan Tannehill.

In terms of guarantees the Steelers gave up their long standing tradition of not guaranteeing any part of the contract beside the signing bonus. That was the big surprise to me even though it is a point that mainly means nothing for either side. My contention all along was that the Steelers would offer a contract close to $30 million a season but with only the signing bonus guarantee, which I assumed would be around $50 million.

They completely broke with tradition, doing full guarantees on the 2021, 2022, and 2023 salaries. Even Ben Roethlisberger only received some injury guarantees in his contract with the Steelers. I would have thought as part of a tradeoff Pittsburgh would at least get a five year contract but instead they just did four, which again is also a surprise. There do not look to be any early roster bonuses in the contract so I guess in that sense they may have gotten some deferrals on the cash payouts in 22 and 23 compared to what they would do in a normal contract. The P5 salaries are paid out over a longer term now while the roster bonuses would have seen larger front end payouts. I would also guess they offered a bigger bonus this year in lieu of guarantees and saw a concession there as a better cash option for them.

I would anticipate that this will mark the end of the Steelers being able to argue that they can not do guarantees in their contracts in the future. It probably will also put the Packers and Bengals, the two other teams who do not use guaranteed salaries, on the spot in the near future and make it more difficult to stick with the past. This year marks a new era for the Steelers’ contracts who used void years for cap relief for the first time ever as well. Welcome to the 20’s I guess.

By not getting the fifth season (nor apparently including a dummy year) the Steelers wont have the ability to spread out cap charges to the max extent in the future. Its not a big deal for next year but would be a bigger issue in the future. Perhaps they are banking on not needing to touch the contract outside of 2022 when he will have a $31 million salary cap charge.

Ultimately Watt will rank 1st in annual contract value, 1st in full guarantees, 1st in three year salary, tied for 1st in signing bonus money, and 4th in total guarantees among EDGE players. He is also the only EDGE to earn at least $17.5 million a season and be signed for just four years instead of five or six years. It’s a terrific deal for him and one that the Steelers have to hope they can build around in what will likely be the post-Roethlisberger era.

2021 Season Preview: The Top Valued Rosters in the NFL

With the regular season about to get underway I thought this would be a good time to start breaking down the rosters in the league in some different ways. For today I wanted to look at which teams have the most expensive rosters in the NFL when valued by the annual contract value of the players on the team. These numbers will change (Mark Andrews for example signed a $14M contract as I started this) this week but for the most part should give an idea of who does and does not have a lot invested in their team.

The second thing I wanted to look at was how much cap space each team is projected to have in 2022. I used each team’s estimated cap room and added in the salary cap carryover estimates to come up with those figures. That gives us an even better idea as to who is and who is not “all in” on this season. While I did have time to add the Andrews contract to the APY calculation the Ravens cap calculations have not been updated for Andrews.

The most valuable roster is the Tampa Bay Bucs at $240M, about $35M more than the NFL average this year. The Buccaneers went off all their salary cap norms in order to keep this team together to try to repeat as a Super Bowl champion and it is reflected in how strong the roster, on paper, is.

The Bills come in at number 2 with a $239M roster led by their $43M quarterback, Josh Allen. The Bills are not a team that traditionally people would expect to see here but they were incredibly successful last year and probably kept a few guys they would not have if the 2020 season finished in the wildcard round.

The Browns at just under $235 million are number three and the expectations are going to be sky high. With a few potential big extensions on the horizon they may be moving into a firm hold on the top spots for the next few years if things go well this season, though I would expect the complexion of the team to look a little different.

The Cowboys are one of the rare teams with three $20M/year players not to mention an expensive running back. They rank 4th in the NFL at $234M. Dallas had a rough season with Dak Prescott sidelined for most of the year in 2020 and there is a ton of pressure on Dallas to dominate a weak division this year is Prescott is healthy.

Finally at number five we have the Colts at $230.5M. This is the team that surprised me the most. Part of their numbers are inflated by the presence of Carson Wentz who costs the team far less than his contract value but they have a good amount of middle class and upper level players on this team. They do not have the long term commitments other teams do, but this was a big change for the Colts this year who have a big payroll.

On the low end are three traditional higher spenders in the Falcons, Panthers, and Steelers. I am confident the Steelers number will shoot way up by Saturday if they sign TJ Watt to a big contract with what I would expect to be a $40M signing bonus, but they have clearly been impacted by their cap situation. The Panthers and Falcons are basically reeling from bad cap situations and drafts that have made it more difficult for them to really make the kind of additions one would expect.

The Chargers have the 4th lowest number which also surprised me. I wonder if they could have added a little more this year in free agency to surround their young star QB rather than waiting until next year. The Dolphins are number five which was not a surprise. They took a step back with some of their roster decisions from last year and did not replace them, clearly looking more at 2022 than 2021.

That brings me to my next point which is where we look at how teams value this year may or may not impact cap room next year.

The X-axis shows this year roster value based on the APY of all the players on the team while the Y-axis shows next year’s projected salary cap space (and it includes the early estimated for cap carryover). The lines represent the averages in the NFL. If you are in the top right quadrant it means you have both an expensive roster this year and cap flexibility next year. That is usually a good spot to be in because you have room to keep your free agents and if you do not have many free agents you have room to add. The Colts, Bears, Patriots, Washington, and Seattle show up here.

The left quadrant are the teams likely playing with house money in 2021. They have low valued rosters this year and a lot of cap space next year. This includes the Steelers, Chargers, Panthers, Bengals, Jets, Jaguars, Broncos, Raiders, Ravens, and Lions. The closer you are to the mid line (Raiders, Lions, and Ravens) the more pressure there should be on this year while the further you are the more the teams were likely looking at 2022.

The bottom right are the teams who are all in. They have high valued rosters and below average cap space. The Packers, Saints, and Cowboys are the three who clearly are all the most on this season. The Vikings and Cardinals also both sneak in here and are two teams that should have a ton of pressure to deliver. Arizona in particular has the makings of a team that could make in season changes if things fall apart. The Chiefs, Texans, 49ers, Browns, Bills, Bucs, Titans, and 49ers are all here.

Finally the bottom left is a rough spot. These are teams who don’t have the high valued rosters and do not have good cap projections for next year. These teams are likely a WYSIWYG situation for two years which can be very difficult if the team winds up flopping this year. The Giants and Rams are right at the edge of this while the Falcons and Eagles are in a bad spot.

The other thing interesting about this is how many teams are on the two extremes. Todays NFL has definitely embraced the idea of playing for the future more than the present where teams are basically given the ok to not maximize their roster with a faint hope of winning and being more realistic about their fortunes. That does allow more teams who project to be good to load up in a given year rather than losing those free agent players to the “bad teams” in the league. Not sure if this is a trend that continues but it has come more into focus the last few years.

Here is the list in table form.   

Team2021 Roster Value2022 Cap Space
Football Team$208,935,428$54,645,531

GM Review: John Dorsey

This summer one of our interns, Aaron McKinney, worked on a project toward developing different ways to evaluate the performance of NFL front offices. He opted to go back and look at the career of former Chiefs and Browns General Manager John Dorsey. Aaron went back and graded out Dorsey’s performance in the draft, free agency, and the trade market, utilizing contract data, trade charts, and PFF grading to help quantify the results.

Since Dorsey had such a long history in the NFL this project wound up a very long and in depth piece and we thought that it would be fun to share with the OTC community as a pdf document. If you have any questions you can contact Aaron direct at ammckinn@hotmail.com or let me know via email or on Twitter and Ill pass along the questions to him.

You can download a copy of Aaron’s work below.

Historical Performance Based on Financial Construction of the Roster

The other day I looked at how teams were spending around their Quarterbacks in 2021 and I had a few people ask about how that correlates with team success, so I went back and retroactively charted each year since 2015 to get an idea as to how teams financial construction leads to wins and losses.

For each year I calculated the team’s annual spending on all QB’s on the roster and then the annual value of the top 20 non-QB’s on the roster. Each year was broken down based on the median in the NFL for that given year to classify a team as a “high” or “low” spender in that year. We then looked at the record for each team.  Here was the initial breakdown.

QB ValueTop 20 Non-QB ValueCountWin %

As you can see a majority of teams fall into the category where they split the investment basically deciding to go low on the roster if they have an expensive QB or high on the roster when they have a cheap QB. The results were interesting with those who spend more on the overall team performing better than those who spend below the median for that year.  The teams that go low in both categories on average performed pretty poorly. These would be teams mainly with rookie QBs or third rate veterans and an “on paper” bad roster.

Here is how each group performed when breaking the win totals down a bit further.

QB ValueTop 20 Non-QB Value10.5+ wins8 to 10 wins5.5 to 7 wins0 to 5 wins

So much in the NFL is QB driven that these results make sense. High spending on a QB usually means the team is going to have a high floor which basically eliminates the disaster record. The teams with lower spending on the QB often fall into the rookie pool which has far more variance. The two have similar high end results but the low QB also led to plenty of disaster years. Teams not meeting the standards for the rest of the roster are certainly coming up short despite the fact that they should have a higher floor QB. The double lows really indicate that waiting to see if your rookie is any good or expecting a Nick Foles type of players to fix a mediocre team is not an optimum approach unless the goal is draft position.

Finally, I inflated the numbers for each team based on the $198.2M cap that was in place for 2020 and made a plot of the teams sorted by three record tiers. The quadrants are based on the overall averages for the six years I looked at.  This does overstate and understate some teams since the market itself isn’t pegged to the cap but it made for a quick, easy chart.

There is a lot of green (10+ wins) in the right quadrant, about 50% of all teams, and not much red(under 7 wins), about 20% of all teams. The top left is about 35% green while the bottom right is around 30% green and the bottom left is only 13% green.

So are the lower spenders shot?  No, but there is probably something to gain from looking at how the teams are investing in their teams before the season begins compared to the rest of the league. There is still time for those numbers to change this summer but I think I’ll circle back around in September and see how the teams are looking when it is time to actually play the games.

Today I wanted to take a look at how much talent teams are attempting to surround their QB’s with in 2021. To do that I looked at how much is being spent per year on the top 20 non quarterbacks on each roster and compared that with the total expenditure on the QB room this year. Here is a quick look at how the league breaks down.

Non-QB NFL Spending

Today I wanted to take a look at how much talent teams are attempting to surround their QB’s with in 2021. To do that I looked at how much is being spent per year on the top 20 non quarterbacks on each roster and compared that with the total expenditure on the QB room this year. Here is a quick look at how the league breaks down.

The way I would read this is that teams in the top right quadrant have expensive QBs and are investing a lot in the rest of their roster despite what is being spent on the QB. Those in the bottom right are relying heavily on rookie talent and/or are relying on the QB to push them over the top. The top left are the teams with lower cost QB situations and trying to surround their teams with as much talent as possible. Those in the bottom left have cheap QB rooms but are being more cautious with their spending on the rest of the roster.

A few things stood out to me here. Of the teams with expensive QB rooms only three rank top 10 in non QB spending. The Buccaneers did everything humanly possible to come back with an intact roster and have the most expensive upper tier roster in the NFL with $170.8M per year allocated to their top 20 non QB contracts. The next six teams- the Saints, Browns, Cardinals, Bills, Patriots and Bears- all have relatively lower cost QB’s.

Of the teams that do spend above average on non-QB’s they generally the teams spending between the 10th and 16th most in the league.  That’s the basic impact of having an expensive QB either on the front end of his contract and/or doing a very good job of managing the cap charges associated with that contract.

Of the eight bottom spending teams, seven of them have QB’s that rank in the top 16 in the NFL and five of those seven rank top 10. These teams are all pretty interesting. The Falcons and Steelers position here clearly is because of salary cap disasters, though the Steelers could move up higher when/if they extend TJ Watt. The Lions and 49ers are two teams who probably have an eye more on the future than this season and are playing out the string a bit, especially the 49ers, with an expensive QB.

Seattle is an interesting team. They don’t invest a lot around Wilson but they are also in a position where they should be saving for or waiting to spend more on an extension for Jamal Adams and perhaps some future line help. The Vikings are hard to get a handle on. They fall into a weird no mans land of being heavily invested in a QB but may not have a long investment in that main QB.

The Raiders are probably just mismanaged and not taking an advantage of the fact that Carr at this point in his career is cheap and is the perfect kind of contract to surround with a ton of talent to try to take advantage of that. The Colts have some added extensions on the horizon but they also fall into that cheaper QB category from a cap perspective. Id love to have seen them take an added risk or two in free agency.

Of the cheaper QB rooms the Ravens stand out. Now if we look just at the next two years their QB room is not that cheap since Lamar Jackson has a big cap number in 2022 and is in line for a massive extension on top of that. This is probably the right call for the long term but I think its fair to wonder why they are not approaching things like Buffalo. When looking at the Bengals, Dolphins, and Chargers I think you would like to see them up a bit more as well. The young QB window is basically 3 years max with the first year coming in the second year of their career. Why not bet strong on a young player now rather than waiting until you see it for real in year 2?  Teams should be proactive in taking advantage of these windows not reactive and missing out. I’d hate to be the team that has a QB take off in year 2, lose in the WC round, and debate about how different it would be if we added two more players. Meanwhile in the back of your mind the next year is saving up for an extension and you miss the window entirely.

The other standout is Carolina. This is a team still in the middle of a major rebuild and probably salary cap constrained with an eye on some extensions. However, having gone out and traded for Sam Darnold who was a highly drafted but thus far NFL flawed QB it would seem to be an injustice to not fill more veteran talent around him. I’m not sure if this is much different than what he was in in NY except with a less intense media spotlight and perhaps a more forgiving fanbase. This is a clear team that needs their rookies and second year players to make a major leap.

I think if you are a fan of the Browns, Bills, Cardinals, Patriots, and Giants you are probably pretty happy with how their front offices are trying to win now. You can certainly argue with some of the moves and whether the contract value really matches the production (I’m really looking at New England and New York on that one) but at least they are giving it a shot when they have a good chance. If the Bears can drop off some of their veteran salary and start Justin Fields they probably fit in that same category.

Here is the breakdown of each team’s spending in 2021.

TeamTop 20 Non QB ValueQB Value
Football Team$137,894,999$13,920,000

Vikings Avoid Contract Dispute With Danielle Hunter

Danielle Hunter and the Vikings came to an agreement yesterday on a restructured contract which would get Hunter to report this year and end, for the time being, what had been an unhappy contract situation. While we do not have the full details on the new deal, based on reports we can piece a few things together and see why this was a pretty easy situation for the Vikings to get themselves out of.

I guess the first thing to understand is how we got here in the first place. If you are a podcast listener I went over this a few weeks ago but the short version is that Hunter took a way below market contract when he signed for $14.4 million a year in 2018. It was clear when he signed that it was a deal he would be unhappy with and by 2020 as the market turned to over $20 million a year for comparable players he was clearly unhappy with his deal. This was reported on last year and the noise became louder this offseason.

Hunter had no real leverage to negotiate a new contract at this stage. He had three years remaining on his current contract and almost no team ever rips up a deal with that many years left to negotiate a new contract. He also missed all of the 2020 season due to injury.

Occasionally when disputes like this come up the standard way to calm the situation is to move money up in the contract, basically borrowing from the anticipated “extension” year and moving it up into the “non-extension” season. This was done a few times with Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh and most recently with Stephon Gilmore in New England. The Vikings stopped a bit short of the same strategy but the concept remains the same.  

According to Nick Shook of NFL.com  the Vikings have $20 million committed to Hunter in 2022, $18 million of which will come as a roster bonus on the fifth day of the league year, which was first reported by Ian Rapoport. That would represent a $7.25 million potential raise in 2022 for Hunter over his current salary of $12 million. If the report is accurate it would seem as if the team converted most of Hunter’s 2022 salary into the roster bonus. The other part of the deal is that the Vikings took $5.6 million of his salary and paid it to him as a signing bonus.

The numbers all sound wonderful and that is what they are designed to do. Basically this was a crisis management episode for Minnesota and they did what they could to placate the situation. In reality nothing materially changes for them at all

Based on the report he did not a receive a raise this year at all. They simply opted to pay him a portion of his salary now (or whenever the bonus is paid) rather than during the year. While the money sounds huge next year and the bonus clearly gives Hunter the ability to test free agency rather than be forced to linger on a roster until the summer since it is a “pay me or cut me” decision date, the fact is Minnesota was almost always going to be in that position.

The Vikings have, historically, done extensions from their veterans with two years left on their contracts. Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Adam Thielen all received that treatment. Given that there was almost no way for the Vikings to wait out a decision beyond next year. They had an unhappy player on their hands already and if they refused next year after setting precedent with these others it was going to be a bad situation. So the Vikings were always going to have to make a decision about extending Hunter next year.

If Hunter played poorly this year he would have been cut or asked to take a pay cut. If he played well they were going to extend him. None of that changes because of an $18 million roster bonus.  Their decision matrix remains unchanged meaning they gave up next to nothing to get a player back happy with the organization.

As for the cap charges I also would not be concerned. I look at the $18M bonus as nothing more than a placeholder. My assumption is the Vikings will have the right to convert that to a signing bonus and may have added void years to help. The $5.6M signing bonus is an odd number if you divide it by 3, which is the remaining term of the contract. While some teams still do bonuses like that from time to time more often than not they choose bonus amounts that are neat and clean when prorated. $1.866 is not clean. However $1.4 million over 4 years and $1.12 million over 5 years are. So that is why I would guess that there are void years.

In any event they should be able to split that $18M up as $9M over two years as a worst case scenario which would probably put his cap number around $17.9M ($2M salary, $9M RB Proration, $5M SB1 and 2 proration, $1.87M SB proration). Currently its $17.75M so again no material change unless they don’t have the right to convert the roster bonus which certainly seem shortsighted if that were the case.

The new bonus is so small that it doesn’t add much more onto the cap charge if they cut him and if they don’t really do anything with the money except carry it over to next year that offsets that added cost if they release him next March.

Hunter didn’t really have any options here and the Vikings held most of the cards. I think this was a really good way for the team to handle this kind of situation. The player winds up happy even though the team’s position doesn’t change at all. Really a terrific job by Minnesota, assuming of course all the reported details are indeed correct.